2010: ‘Female Religious on the British Isles: Interactions with the Continent'

by Liesbeth Corens, University of Leuven, Belgium

The 2010 History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland conference was the eighth of its sort, and the first to be held across the Channel. Yet the location had some affinity with the British Isles, as the conference took place in the Irish Institute in Louvain, situated in the former Irish College. The organisation was conducted by KADOC, the Documentation and Research Centre of Religion, Culture and Society of the Catholic University of Louvain. Not inappropriately, given this collaboration, the main topic of the conference concerned interactions with the continent. 


During the first panel, the presence of British female religious on the continent was discussed. All three papers in this session dealt with the early modern period. Patricia Harris presented the cross-continental interactions of Mary Ward’s institute during the seventeenth century. How these communities of English religious women were perceived by English Protestant travellers was discussed by Liesbeth Corens. She argued that the encounters between the compatriots of opposite confessions illustrated a positive sense of Englishness transcending the well-known negative national identity formation. Closing this set of papers, Pascal Majérus offered an insight on the use of languages in the Early Modern English convents. Ideally, the nuns aimed at preserving their English identity, and considered the exclusive use of their native language a crucial aspect therein. The reality of daily life, however, forced them to use the language of their host society which is reflected in surviving texts.


The second section focused on the institutional side of continental initiatives launched on the British Isles in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The session was opened by Olivier Rota who discussed the French order of Our Lady of Sion. During the nineteenth century, these women religious opened four houses in England, working towards the conversion of the Jews. In a very practical way, however, they met the need for Catholic educational institutions after the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy, fostering the idea of the ‘conversion of England’. A second French congregation, the Filles de la Sagesse, was examined by Rebecca Volk, analyzing both successful and failed foundations.  Carmen Mangion delivered a paper in which she incorporated the concept of cultural imperialism into the scholarship on religious communities; she scrutinized the history of the Dutch Sisters  of  Charity  of  Our  Lady Mother  of  Mercy on the British Isles, disclosing how their insistence on maintaining an outspoken Dutch identity seriously impeded great successes.  Deirdre Raftery presented hers and Catherine Kilbride’s ongoing research on the Infant Jesus Sisters in Ireland. They illustrated a remarkably successful cross-pollination of ideas, initiated in 1908 as the Frenchman Père Charles Nain hoping to gain new members in Ireland to send to the Far East. Antoine Jacobs presented the fortunes of the Dutch Carmelite Nunnery in Blackburn, discussing their failure to integrate however hard they tried to adapt. Despite their efforts to learn English, they were incessantly referred to as ‘the Dutch sisters’, and closed down in 1996 after a mere 40 years of existence.  


The third and last set of papers were all concerned with the theorizing the very notion of female communities provoked, particularly on their example of female independence and activity in the world. The first paper was presented by Margaret Ó Hógartaigh, who is working on a revisionist biography of Nano Nagle. By introducing the idea of ‘agency’, she presented Nagle as a more determined and international woman than this far presumed.  Raphaël Ingelbien analyzed Lady Morgan’s representation  of  women  religious  in The  Princess; or the Béguine  (1835), demonstrating a continuous interaction between feminism, liberalism and nationalism. For Morgan, the beguines served as a model of female independence. Moreover, she explicitly linked Belgian Catholicism and the liberal struggles in the newly independent kingdom. Thereby she aimed at encouraging Ireland in its striving for autonomy, since the island’s identity was closely interrelated with the Catholic Church, and could therefore gain strength from the Catholic Belgian example. Moira Egan also explored the intersections of gender, religion and national identity. She scrutinized how nineteenth-century feminist writers, colliding with the nationalistic anti-Catholic fears, made reference to continental women’s congregations to argue for female autonomy. Dirk Van Overmeire presented the exchange of ideas on missiological research culture in an English and Belgian publishing series. The connecting thread here was Sister Margaret Thornton (1898-1977), member of the English religious of the Society of the Sacred Heart, whose work as a female mission geographer was greatly inspired by the Belgian scholar Pierre Charles SJ (1883-1954).


In the final discussion, some themes running through most of the papers were suggested. There was, first of all, a recurring preoccupation with identity, both the maintaining and the modification thereof. Some, like the early modern English convents and the Sisters of Charity, purposefully stuck to their original identity. Others on the other hand, aimed at close integration, and attempted to adapt to local culture, as illustrated in the policies of the Dutch Carmelites. Central in this identity issue was the use of language, a second theme frequently dwelled upon. English early modern convents, for instance, hailed English as their preferred language, which was a key aspect of the deliberated maintenance of their English identity. Likewise, the Sisters of Charity only spoke Dutch, while fostering close contacts with the Dutch mother house. These aspects of identity and language might have been pivotal in a third recurring theme, namely that of success or failure. The Sisters of Charity’s cultural imperialism limited the growth of the congregation, as this policy deterred local vocations. The early modern English convents also maintained their native identity, yet aimed at a different population for whom English education was the nuns’ main asset. Some other explanations have been hinted at, such as the difference between contemplative versus active orders, or the town-based as opposed to countryside foundations. Likewise, the needs of the host society had some influence. Our Lady of Sion instant success, for instance, can partly be attributed with the needs of the newly re-established Catholic hierarchy. A last thread running through many of the papers was how the religious women acted in male networks. The nineteenth-century feminist writers discussed by Moira Egan and Raphaël Ingelbien had been fully aware of this, as were early modern men and women. English travellers visited their societal peers, and the Mary Ward sisters’ active involvement in the male world turned out a great source of both success and disgruntlement.


The participants greatly enjoyed a series of local visits organized by members of KADOC and the extended visit to Bruges on the final day. The morning was spent at the English Convent under the direction of Sister Mary Aline who brought to life many of the ideas under discussion at the conference and the afternoon in the city, where the presence of the English community was skillfully interpreted by Lori van Overbeke: her book on the subject is shortly going to press.